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Three Congressional Champions of Organic Announce Retirement

The last couple of years have been challenging, to say the least. And in Washington, D.C., things have been no different. As many people reevaluate their lives and reflect on what is most important to them, three giants in U.S. Congress who have led support for the organic sector have decided it is finally time to hang up their hats.

Collectively they represent 108 years of public service in the U.S House of Representatives and Senate. Two of them—Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Congressman Peter DeFazio (D-OR)—were the original authors of the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) signed into law in 1990 to create federal standards for the burgeoning organic agriculture movement, now a more than $62 billion a year industry. DeFazio and Congressman Ron Kind (D-WI) who also announced he won’t be seeking reelection in 2022, founded and co-chaired the House Organic Caucus, a group of bipartisan lawmakers dedicated to promoting the organic sector that now counts more than 50 representatives in their roster.

A legacy like no other

Known as the “Grandfather of Organic,” Senator Patrick Leahy was Chair of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture during the development of the 1990 farm bill. He introduced and championed the OFPA, ensuring its inclusion in the farm bill, no easy feat given the staunch opposition from the conventional agriculture community and members of Congress who represented them. After the bill was signed into law, Senator Leahy fought fiercely for its implementation, and to this day has advocated for robust federal funding and support of the organic sector. He has been a true friend of organic farmers in his great state of Vermont and across the nation.

Punching above your weight

If Leahy is known as the Grandfather of Organic, then Congressman Peter DeFazio from Oregon might be dubbed “the Godfather of Organic.” When OFPA passed the Senate, Leahy had to find a champion to carry it across the finish line in the House, an even more insurmountable challenge than the Senate because of fierce opposition from both the leadership and rank and file at the House Agriculture Committee. DeFazio volunteered for the thankless task. Fiery and passionate, he was willing to stick his neck out despite being a junior member of Congress with only one term under his belt and having never served on the Agriculture Committee.

Not surprisingly, when the Farm Bill passed out of the House Agriculture Committee, it did not include OFPA. Not one to back down from a challenge, DeFazio said he’d offer the bill as an amendment during the floor debate, a highly risky endeavor given that both the Chair and Ranking member of the Committee opposed the amendment. To everyone’s shock, the amendment was adopted with a final vote of 234-189, ensuring that OFPA would become the law of the land and kickstarting the development of the National Organic Program. DeFazio has remained a steadfast champion of organic agriculture over his long career, founding the House Organic Caucus in 2003.

Defender of Family Farms

Much more than just a cheese head, Congressman Ron Kind from Wisconsin came to Congress determined to save the small family dairy farm. After the farm crisis of the 1980s ripped apart the fabric of many rural communities across the Midwest, Kind became a staunch defender of supporting the little guys. A native of La Crosse, he also represented the world’s largest organic farming cooperative, Organic Valley. Along with DeFazio, he co-chaired the House Organic Caucus for more than a decade.

In addition to his support for organic agriculture, Kind was one of the first farm state lawmakers to advocate for reforming our nation’s broken agriculture subsidy system that unfairly propped up large agribusiness and cash crops at the expense of family farmers. He was the loudest Congressional critic of crop insurance policies and direct cash payments that flowed to a handful, and successfully fought to eliminate harmful programs and reimagine the federal support system for American farms.

A new generation of leaders

The retirement of these public servants who were early supporters of organic mirrors what is happening in the sector overall, where some of the original founders of the organic movement are also retiring. The loss of these giants and their knowledge no doubt will have an impact, but it also presents the movement with a critical opportunity to pass the baton to a new, more diverse generation of leaders.

There’s a new crop of young, passionate Congressmembers who have seen the benefits organic brings to their communities. Many of them are devoted consumers of organic themselves and are raising their kids on organic food. Let’s seize on this opportunity and enthusiasm to bring organic into the future. We’ve come a long way, but in reality, we’re just getting started.

Megan DeBates is Vice President of Government Affairs at the Organic Trade Association.

This article was originally published in the Spring 2022 Organic Report, you can view the full magazine here.